It’s hard to believe Highlands boys basketball coach Tyler Stoczynski is entering his seventh season as the Rams coach.
Along the way, Stoczynski transformed a one-win Highlands program into a perennial power. Nowadays, it seems like all the Rams do from year to year is reload on talent.
“We don’t have a ton of that maturity, leadership and experience that we’ve had here in years past,” said Stoczynski, whose team reached the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals last season. “There’s some guys that are gonna get the opportunity to play some major minutes, and it comes down to who asserts themselves, really listens to what we’re doing and who is really focused during practices to get better.”
Highlands returns its top two scorers, juniors Luke Cochran and Johnny Crise, who are poised to be one of the WPIAL’s most dangerous offensive duos.
“The standards don’t change here. It’s the culture and who we are,” said Cochran. “This year should be an upside year.”
With Cochran and Crise locked into starting spots, 6-foot junior guard Korry Myers and 6-3 senior forward Daniel Thimons will get their chances to shine this season. Both came off the bench to play crucial minutes in big games last season.
“Last year, you could put those five out there, and we’re going to go to war with anybody,” Cochran said. “There’s a difference between barking and biting, and we were obviously biters last year.”
Highlands added another athlete to the mix in senior Seth Cohen, who rewrote the school’s record book as the starting quarterback the past two seasons. He returns to the court after taking a two-year break.
“He did play for us as a freshman, so it’s not all brand new to him, and he does understand the concepts that we’re trying to apply,” Stoczynski said. “I think he’ll be a great complement to us. We don’t have a ton of physicality this year, like last year. He definitely brings that size.”
Cohen has impressed Crise with the way he picked up where he left off. Scoring plays from Cohen to Crise aren’t over yet.
“I thought that he’d come in here a little bit more rustier, but he has surprised me,” said Crise, who was Cohen’s favorite receiver on the football field. “He’s athletic. We still have the chemistry.”
Along with Cohen, last season’s underclassmen in sophomores Kaeleb Radashak and Dom Pesci also are pushing for increased playing time and figure to be the top reserves.
This season will have a different look. The Rams dropped from Class 5A to Class 4A and are in Section 1-4A with rivals Freeport and Knoch, along with Derry, Yough and Mt. Pleasant. Outside of Highlands, Freeport is the only other team in the section to reach the playoffs last season. Knoch, Derry, Yough and Mt. Pleasant had a combined record of 22-61 last season.
“Knoch’s going to be really, really strong this year,” said Stoczynski. “Freeport’s always well-coached, and I don’t know enough about those other teams yet. We’re just going to approach every game the same way, and that’s what we do.”
Stoczynski schedule several challenging nonsection opponents: at Class 3A Beaver Falls on Dec. 18, on the road; home to Class 6A Seneca Valley on Jan. 18; and against Lincoln Park at the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Hall of Fame Classic on Jan. 27 at Montour. The Rams open section play Dec. 20 at Yough.
“We’re never going to be the best form of ourselves early in the season,” Stoczynski said. “It’s always been a trend to always get better going into the postseason time of the year.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.